14 March, 2016

Making tracks: via Mt Mercer

I initially began researching the route travelled by the diggers who flocked to the goldfields of Buninyong, Ballarat and beyond after noticing that a number of towns located on the rivers, creeks and gullies of the Barwon catchment claimed to be on the "main gold route" or on the "best line of road" to the goldfields. But how could places as far apart as Teesdale on the Leigh Road and the Eclipse Hotel at Durdidwarrah and Morrisons, along with all the towns which sprang up along the Geelong to Buninyong Track, justify their claims?
It quickly became apparent that there were several different routes which hopeful prospectors could take to the diggings and each had its own claim to being "the main route from Geelong to Ballarat" (or Buninyong for the current purpose as all roads from Geelong passed through or near that town). The shortest route was certainly the bullock track which lead from Geelong to Buninyong. It was well established by the 1840s and had been used by the mail coaches to travel between Geelong and Buninyong since 1846. If volume of newspaper content is anything to go by, this was certainly the busiest route to the goldfields and the topic of my most recent posts.
Teesdale of course, is not on this route. It was however on the road taken by another of the earliest mail coaches in the district - the Portland Bay Mail Coach. The mail from Geelong (and from Melbourne via the steamer) was carried by coach through Leigh Road (Bannockburn), Teesdale, The Leigh (Shelford), Rokewood and onwards to join the Melbourne to Portland Bay mail at Fiery Creek (Streatham/Beaufort). An 1856 survey map of the Teesdale area describes this road as the "main road from Fiery Creek to Geelong via Batesford".
Shelford iron bridge under construction 1873-4. The timber pylons of the original
bridge are visible between those of the new bridge
Like the Geelong to Buninyong Track, the Portland Bay Road required travellers to undertake several river and creek crossings - the Moorabool River at Batesford, Bruce's Creek at Leigh Road and two crossings of the Leigh/Yarrowee River. The first of these was at The Leigh where, prior to 1850, the crossing was made via a ford. After this date, a wooden bridge was installed which served until 1873-4 when a wrought-iron box girder bridge was erected as per the design of Leigh Shire engineer C.A.C. Wilson.
After crossing the Leigh, those travelling to Buninyong needed to branch off the Portland Bay road and head north. First however, they could take a meal or stay overnight at the Settlers' Arms Inn, before following the track which lead to Mt Mercer and on to Buninyong. The inn was built in 1843 by Captain Francis Ormond who leased the surrounding land from George Russell of the Clyde Company, agreeing to improve the area and build the inn which soon prospered as a result of the passing trade.
Settler's Arms Inn built by Captain Francis Ormond in`1843. Situated near
the Shelford bridge across the Leigh River, the inn was a staging post on the
Portland Bay mail route. It was demolished in 1983 to allow construction
of the current road bridge. Image taken in 1975 is from the John T Collins
Collection, State Library of Victoria
Whilst none of the early maps such as those produced by surveyor AJ Skene (1845), Ham's map of the routes to the Mt Alexander & Ballarat diggings (1852) or Sands & Kenny's Map of Victoria (1859) show a road running from Shelford to Buninyong, the track did exist and it was used to access the goldfields. Survey maps as early as 1851, show the beginning of a road leading south from Buninyong "to The Leigh". It was not until 1857 however, that it was officially surveyed - at least in part - by government surveyor Maurice Weston and was indeed titled "part of Geelong and Ballarat Road from Shelford to Mt Mercer".
A dirt track leading into Shelford, taken during the late 19th century. Image held
by the State Library of Victoria
An important point of distinction however, which may also explain Teesdale's claim to be on the "main gold route" from Geelong to Ballarat, is a description which appears in the newspapers from the 1850s onwards, referring to the "main road from Geelong to Ballarat via Mt Mercer". It is probably telling that the description of this road always seemed to come with the qualifier "via Mt Mercer". I suspect this meant not that this was "the" main road, but rather that it was "a" main road and that it ran via Mt Mercer. In this era the phrase "government road" or "main government road" was often also used. It described official roads built and maintained by the government. From the 1860s, local road districts were established to levy rates and to maintain roads across the colony. The colonial government however, still retained responsibility for the most important roads, therefore a "main road" was any road which was paid for and maintained by the government rather than by the local road district or shire council. Having a road declared as a "main road" by the government could remove significant financial strain from a struggling rural shire.
Another consideration is the term "main gold route". Does this mean the route taken by the diggers to get to the goldfields or the route taken by the gold escorts bringing the gold back to Geelong? Newspaper reports show that the the contractors carrying gold to Geelong travelled via the Geelong to Buninyong Road. It was for this reason that a police paddock and associated buildings were established at Meredith in 1853 (and a little later also at Burnt Bridge), to provide a base for the police officers accompanying the gold; a staging post for changing horses.
This early photograph taken c1852-1854 shows the Ballarat gold escort. Image
held by the State Library of Victoria
Whilst it may have been shorter and there may have been more traffic on the Geelong to Buninyong Track, it was not without its problems. When the weather was bad, some sections of the road became a quagmire. Negotiating "Scott's Swamp" could prove an almost impossible prospect. The approach from Melbourne could also be a difficult journey; one traveller reported seeing hundreds of drays stranded in the mud during a single trip to the goldfields of Ballarat. It is probably no surprise then, that whilst researching a previous post, I found mention of the track from Shelford to Buninyong being used by travellers when the Geelong to Buninyong Track was impassable during bad weather.
It may have been longer, however travellers would go a significant distance out of their way to avoid bad roads, even taking to the bush when necessary.
It is also worth noting that the Geelong to Buninyong Road and the road via Mt Mercer did not exist in isolation from one another. They were connected by tracks (and later roads) which ran east-west between them. As I mentioned in an earlier post about the Green Tent, there was a track running from that place back to Shelford which was used by bullockies and those wanting to graze their stock, as well as the track which became the Meredith-Shelford Rd. If conditions were proving too difficult on one road, it was possible to veer off and head for the other.
And it is at this point that another local tale surfaces. Whilst on a visit to 'Narmbool' (the squatting property established in 1839 by Hugh Niven, now owned by Sovereign Hill), I was told that an old track leading down across Williamson's Creek was "used by the diggers during the gold rush". This would seem to be confirmed by a road marked on an 1892 geological survey map, running in a direct line between Horsehill Rd and Williamson's Creek along the fence line we were shown. After crossing the creek, survey maps of Clarendon Parish from 1915 show the road - presumably following the earlier track - continuing on to a fork. One branch ran north, following what today is a vague track which becomes Pryor's Rd, the other travelled only a short distance south west to Sand Rd. Both Sand and Pryor's Roads meet up again to the east of the mining town of Garibaldi before joining the Buninyong-Mt Mercer Rd. Thus the diggers could follow this road north to Buninyong or they could again join the Geelong to Buninyong Rd to the east of Scotsburn, or possibly further west, thus avoiding Scott's Swamp.
Local sources say that, a track used by diggers heading to the goldfields
(presumably from' the Geelong to Buninyong Rd) ran down the hill at the fence
line to cross Williamson's Creek at this point 
It is also worth remembering however that as the gold rush progressed, diggings spread out across the countryside. With the advent of large companies and deep lead mining towards the end of the 1850s, mines were established along the banks of the Yarrowee/Leigh River as far south as the Leigh Grand Junction Bridge and a little beyond. It makes sense therefore that by the time they were surveyed in 1857, that the Shelford-Mt Mercer Road and the subsequent Mt Mercer-Buninyong Rd would be the main access route for those heading from Geelong to the mining settlements along the river such as Garibaldi and Scotchman's Lead.
Looking at the survey maps available from the 1850s for the parish of Enfield, the old track by and large, followed the same course as the modern road, although where the modern road veers to the west to meet the road from Dereel, the old track stayed close to the river past Mt Mercer. Further north near Garibaldi, the track again followed a slightly different course, crossing the Yarrowee River about 700m north west of the present crossing which was not built until 1866. As I described in an earlier post, the river crossing at Garibaldi was dangerous, with three people said to have lost their lives during flooding prior to the erection of the bridge downstream.
Google Earth image showing: modern roads (yellow), Buninyong-Mt Mercer
Track (green), unused road on 'Narmbool' (blue), other pre-survey tracks (red).
Click to enlarge
Unfortunately the only 1850s survey map which I am currently able to access is that for Enfield Parish, so I am uncertain of the exact path of the original track to the north or south of this area. It does appear however, that the entry to Buninyong was intended to be via a more direct line one block to the east of the current alignment, which makes me wonder if perhaps Sandys Hill Rd (which intersects the road to The Leigh as marked on the survey map), may have been part of the original track from Mt Mercer.
It is also worth remembering that there may well have been other informal crossing points along the Leigh/Yarrowee which also gave access for those heading to the goldfields. I know of at least one bridge which no longer exists, but which was used by workers crossing to 'Golfhill'. Located at the end of Henderson's Rd, Bamganie, it was a timber swing bridge which existed into the 20th century, however I am unsure of its age. Similarly, there is a small bridge on Kelly's Rd, Grenville where the Leigh can be crossed, however the road itself does not appear on the earliest survey maps.
No doubt there were other crossing points and tracks along the way, all of which could have been used by those travelling to and from the goldfields to reach the road between Buninyong and Shelford.
If at any point I find more detail I will update this post accordingly.


  1. Recently found you bolg Jo. Wow! so much very well researched info here. I have been most interested in your research on Green Tent Rd, I live no so far from there and have often wondered about the name, thinking it may have had some wartime army history. However on a recent visit to the old Geelong gaol I found info on Owen McQueen(e)y the Green Tent murderer and though I would try to find if this was related to Green Tent Rd - thus I found your excellent blog. I am also interested in your research on the track to the gold fields. My ancestors would have taken the Geelong to Buninyong track in around 1855-6 after arrival in Geelong and I have often wondered which way they would have traveled. Your reference to Melbourne Road being in the Green Tent vicinity with the possibility that it then went down Perdrisit Rd to Maude and on to Werribee. Do you know the approximate line of this track? Did it connect with the Geelong Melbourne Rd around Lara? Would this have been the only route from Buninyong to Melbourne? or was there a more direct track east from Buninyong? Thanks for putting all this info up. Paul

    1. Hi Paul, glad you're finding the blog helpful! With respect to the Melbourne Rd to Buninyong which came via Perdrisat's Rd, it is mentioned in a couple of articles and this map from Trove ( http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/28561597?q=skene+victoria&l-decade=184&c=map&versionId=45145242 ) shows the track passing behind the You Yangs, crossing Little River to the east of the You Yangs and then crossing the Werribee River (think they also called it the Ex River at one point) and following a separate course to Melbourne from the Melb-Geelong Road. The two do not appear to meet.
      With respect to a route directly from Buninyong to Melbourne, yes, there was one from very early on which was used by the mail coach travelling from Melbourne to Portland Bay in the 1840s. It went via Keilor, Bacchus Marsh, Ballan and then to Buninyong, but I gather it could be a very hard trip. It was also longer than the road from Geelong to Buninyong, so catching the steamer from Melbourne to Geelong and then taking the shorter road was seen as a good option by many. The Geelong Advertiser of course encouraged this whilst The Argus screamed blue murder that travellers would be daft to add an extra 40+ miles to their journey by going to Geelong, even if it did reduce the distance walked by anything up to 20 miles! The animosity between the two papers makes very interesting reading!
      Hope this helps! Let me know if I can add anything!

  2. Thank you Jo. Very interesting. You have a great knowledge of this early Vic history and a very easy to read writing style. Once again I do appreciate your efforts and thank you for sharing so freely. Paul

  3. Hi Jo, further to info on Buninyong - Melbourne Rd (track) via Green Tent. Would you have an overlay of this track on a current map showing the section from Green Tent through to the crossing of the Little River east of the You Yangs. I know of an old ford on the Moorabool situated north of the current Perdrisat Rd bridge and another on Sutherlands Creek also north of existing bridge and would like to establish if these align close to the old track. Cheers Paul

    1. Hi Paul, Skene's map which I used does cover that area if I use a larger area than the section I used for the blog, however it isn't a particularly detailed map so I really wouldn't rely on being able to pinpoint exact locations. the original survey maps from the 1850s are much more accurate, but they aren't always online. Where they do exist, they tend to show old tracks and river crossings. The other thing which might show up old fords is the field books used by the surveyors, but again, it depends if they exist and they are much harder to work with than maps.
      I've had a fiddle with the Skene map looking at a wider area, but I'm not happy with the result. Are you able to have a look at it yourself if you take a copy of the map from the link above?
      I am very interested to hear of other fords/crossings on both the river and the creek. I would love to have a look, but am assuming they are on private property.
      I actually need to have a look at this for an upcoming blog post as I will be looking at the track to Ballarat via Steiglitz, but I'm not sure there is anything else to find at this stage.
      Additionally, from speaking to my aunt who lives on the river and from looking at the survey maps, I am also aware of another crossing point a few hundred metres south east of Clyde Park, but this is well south of where you are talking about.
      Anyway, I'm not sure how helpful this is, but if I come up with anything more useful I'll let you know.
      Feel free to contact me via email if it is easier: jomitch@ncable.net.au

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  5. Hi Jo!
    Great blog!
    The reason I’ve read it is that I’ve recently obtained a painting by DB ‘76 of the Settlers Arms Inn in Shelford.
    It’s in amazing condition and I’d love to find out more about it and the artist!
    Regards John